Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’
Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home. I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend. He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments. Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.
You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right. I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.
Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey‘
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.
Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.
She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.
Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.
Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.
“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”
Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.
Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.
Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.
Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.
Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.
Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”
Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.
She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.
The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.
Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.
His music, she said, speaks through her.
The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.
Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.
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Add Carleen Brice to the very long list of native Nebraskans who have found success as authors. She plied her craft for years as an editor and journalist before taking the plunge as a novelist a few years ago, and her first two book-length works of fiction, Orange Mint and Honey and Children of the Waters, did very well with critics and audiences. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared on the eve of the Lifetime Movie Network‘s premiere of Sins of the Daughter, the made-for-television adaptation of her first novel Orange Mint and Honey. Carleen was quite pleased with how her work was transferred to the screen. The better-than-average Lifetime movie stars Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie as the mother-daughter figures who reconnect after years of estrangement. The pic is steeped in 12-step philosophies and principals because the mother character is a recovering addict, but the movie never steeps to cheap sentimentality or simplistic cures. It is also quite mature and real, just like Carleen’s book. She got to spend some time on the movie’s set in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition to her books, Carleen is an active blogger and contributor to various online sites. Check out her The Pajama Gardener and White Readers Meet Black Authors. You can also find her work at Girlfriends Book Club, SheWrites, and The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. And, of course, she’s on Facebook and Twitter. It seems that a girl (or boy) author just can’t get by these days without putting themselves and their work out there in the social media world.
A NOTE: Carleen’s later grandfather, Billy Melton, was a friend of mine. On this same blog I have several stories in which I quote Billy. One piece profiles his love of music, another recounts the experiences of Billy and his comrades in an all-black Quartermaster battalion during World War II, another has Billy and friends waxing nostalgic on the Ritz Cab Co. they drove for, and still another has Billy and others weighing in on what makes soul food, well, soul food. I will also be adding another story I did about Carleen and her writing life.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native Carleen Brice often doubted she’d complete, much less get published, her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World/Ballantine). She did. It broke big in 2008 and now a Lifetime Movie Network version of it is premiering.
The movie, Sins of the Mother, stars Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie as a mother and daughter struggling to heal their broken relationship. Scott is a powerhouse as Nona, the mother in recovery from alcoholism. Beharie is intense as Shay, the resentful daughter whose childhood was stolen by Nona’s drinking and carousing.
Long estranged, the two end up living together when Shay’s unresolved turmoil sends her back home from grad school. She finds a changed woman in Nona, who works a steady job, keeps a tidy home, stays sober and cares for a new daughter, Sunny. Her 12-step recovery infuses her life — from affirmations taped everywhere to meetings to sponsorship.
It’s all too much for Shay, who’s come for an apology, not a crash course in serenity. She doesn’t buy Nona’s sobriety as real. After some false-starts she accepts Nona’s healthy transformation. The wounded Shay’s finally able to confront her own hurt and learns to trust and love again.
There are big emotional moments, especially a church scene in which Scott and Beharie tear it up. There are some small, closely observed moments, too, like in the prayer garden where Nona and Shay surrender their fears. It all rings true and cathartic, not sappy or coy. Director Paul Kaufman makes Nona’s house and garden charged characters. Sunny represents the happy child Shay never was but also the hope of her and Nona’s new lives.
Scene from Sins of the Mother, with Jill Scott (L) and Nicole Beharie (R)
Brice, who resides in Denver, is pleased how her work was translated. “I was really happy they stuck so closely to the book. I definitely feel my book is the source of the movie,” she said.
Fans of the novel would have to agree it’s a faithful adaptation, although they may quibble about some deletions. Count screenwriter Elizabeth Hunter (Beauty Shop) a fan. She tried staying true to the novel as possible.
“The book was great. If it’s rolling I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel and this one was rolling. Carleen just created all these very rich characters I hadn’t seen before,” Hunter said.
She hated losing some of the novel’s leitmotifs, such as Nina Simone appearing to Shay in moments of crisis. Hunter, like Brice, is a huge Simone devotee.
“The Nina Simone of it all hooked me into the book,” said Hunter. “Unfortunately, it was very expensive to get the rights to her music.”
Other story elements didn’t make it in the script due to time constraints, but Hunter’s satisfied “the characters and the emotions track really well.” Brice is, too, saying, “I feel very good about how the screenwriter and everyone involved approached this adaptation.”
Brice visited the movie’s Vancouver, British Columbia set, where as an extra she anxiously watched the crucial church scene filmed.
“It was THE big scene in the story, so, yes, I was worried about it,” said Brice. “But I also had always thought of it as the scene that would attract movie people. It’s meaty, you know? It was the last scene they filmed with Jill so it was really special for many reasons to be a part of it.”
In an essay Brice’s written for thedefendersonline.com she describes a coming-full-circle experience of listening on her iPod Scott sing “Try” prior to meeting the Grammy-winning singer and star of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The same song and message carried Brice through the angst of writing the novel. Seeing Scott and Beharie bring it to life moved her to tears.
The author writes she once steeled herself at the thought of others interpreting her work by repeating, mantra-like, “The book is mine, the movie is theirs.” By the end of the shoot she’d changed her mind to the point where “the movie feels like it’s mine, too.”
Brice’s acclaimed 2009 novel, Children of the Waters (One World/Ballantine) is being considered for a movie adaptation. Might she adapt it herself? “I would consider it, but I understand that adapting is more difficult than it seems. We’ll see.”
Her in-progress novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home, is about a woman long estranged from her father who becomes close with his widow.
As for “her” movie, Brice will be watching with a Denver book club that won a contest she sponsored. She’s bringing champagne.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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